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The Power to Pollute:

Big Agribusinesses's Political Dominance in Madison and Its Impact on Our Waterways

by Judee Burr and Benjamin Davis, Frontier Group, and Megan Severson, Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center

Executive Summary

Factory farms are polluting Wisconsin’s treasured waterways. Runoff laced with pollution from animal manure contaminates the state’s lakes and rivers, and the number of factory farms in the state is rapidly increasing. 

The agencies charged with keeping Wisconsin’s water clean have issued more and more water permits to industrial farming operations every year, even though livestock operations have already polluted thousands of acres of lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers. The state’s failure to protect our waterways from factory farming is the result of years of lobbying by powerful corporate agribusiness interests. Since 2007, corporate agribusiness interests have spent $427,000 on campaign contributions and $4.4 million on lobbying to get their way in Madison. 

To protect Wisconsin’s precious lakes and rivers, state officials must stand up to pressure from factory farming lobbyists, refuse to permit new factory farms, and ensure that existing ones follow the law.

Pollution from factory farms is a growing threat to Wisconsin’s treasured lakes and rivers. Stormwater runoff from fields and livestock operations carries pollutants from manure into Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. This can harm wildlife and public health – creating algal blooms that kill fish, destroy wildlife habitat, and contaminate drinking water.

  • Factory farms produce more manure than they can safely dispose of by spreading on nearby fields, and pollution from this excess manure runs off fields during storms and into Wisconsin’s lakes. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are found in animal waste and can create harmful algal blooms.
  • As of 2010, pollution from livestock operations of all sizes has left more than 4,000 acres of lakes and 377 miles of rivers and creeks too polluted to sustain their designated uses of swimming, fishing, or providing a healthy habitat for aquatic plants and animals in Wisconsin.

Factory farms in Wisconsin are rapidly proliferating, increasing the threat of runoff pollution.

  • In 1992, there was only one permitted factory farm in Wisconsin. By 2002, that number had jumped to 92, and by 2012, that number had jumped to 237. (See Figure ES-1.)
  • Wisconsin is undergoing a sharp transition from a tradition of family farming to large factory farms. From 1997 to 2007, the percentage of cows in Wisconsin on farms with fewer than 100 animals decreased from 70 percent to 47 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of cows on farms with 500 or more cows jumped from 3 percent to 17 percent. (See Figure ES-2.)
  • In Wisconsin, dairy concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) hold 434,547 animal units – equal to 303,879 cows assuming they are all milking and dry cows – and can produce more waste than produced by Wisconsin’s entire population.

Figure ES-1: Number of Wisconsin’s Permitted Factory Farms Has Grown Dramatically


The agencies charged with protecting Wisconsin’s lakes have supported the growth of the factory farms. Over the past decade, the number of water permits issued for factory farms has increased, while the number of issued citations has decreased.

  • In February 2010, an investigative article in the Wisconsin State Journal found that in the seven years since the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had taken charge of overseeing new or expanded dairy farms, the agency had never turned down a permit request – nor revoked a permit after a factory farm violated pollution standards.
  • The DNR has issued fewer citations over time to factory farms. In 2012, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued three violation notices for animal waste from CAFOs – down from 13 in 2011 and 15 in 2010.

Agribusiness interests have spent millions of dollars to influence decisions in Madison.

  • Lobbying: In the past five years, agribusinesses and agribusiness-related organizations spent more than $4.4 million lobbying the state government in Wisconsin. These lobbying expenditures include almost $200,000 spent by Kraft Foods, more than $800,000 spent by the Dairy Business Association (DBA), and over $1 million spent by Koch Companies Public Sector (a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which is a multi-billion dollar corporation that sells products and services to large agricultural operations through its other subsidiaries).
  • Campaign contributions: Between 2007 and June 2012, agribusinesses and corporate-backed agribusiness organizations contributed $427,000 to Wisconsin political candidates and committees.
  • Revolving door: Many state regulators responsible for enforcing rules on factory farms have formerly served as agribusiness lobbyists, and vice versa. David Jelinski, for example, who was a lobbyist for the DBA, was formerly the Director of Land, Water and Resources Management at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
  • Corporate influence over farm advocacy organizations: Organizations that claim to represent small Wisconsin farmers may actually receive the bulk their financial support from corporate agribusinesses, which benefit from the spread of factory farms. The Dairy Business Association (DBA) – one of the loudest voices for the large-scale dairy in Wisconsin – derives much of its financial support from a small number of corporate agribusiness firms.

Wisconsin should take immediate steps to protect the state’s waterways from pollution from corporate agribusiness – and to restore our already-polluted waterways to health. The Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection should more strictly regulate water pollution from factory farms by:

  • Banning the over-application of fertilizer that leads to pollution of waterways.
  • Regulating more strictly high-capacity well systems, which withdraw more than 70 gallons per minute and can take a serious toll on lakes, streams and groundwater resources.
  • Banning aerial manure application, which may expose Wisconsin residents to diseases found in animal manure.
  • Continuing to require reductions in discharges to waterways that fail to meet water quality standards by enforcing existing laws. This will ensure that pollution from agribusiness activity does not make waterways unsafe for fishing, swimming and wildlife.
  • Maintaining strong standards to limit phosphorus pollution, reducing the occurrence and severity of algal blooms that kill fish, destroy wildlife habitat, and contaminate drinking water.
  • Tightening rules for inspection and punishing repeat or serious violators of water pollution laws with real penalties, not slaps on the wrist.
  • Creating a citizen monitoring system by which residents can report potential violations from factory farms that will be investigated by the DNR. The DNR should create a web portal through which citizens can submit allegations and review the results of DNR investigations.
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